If there's one overarching theme of this blog for the 16+ years that it's been around, it might be "disrupted industries behaving badly." It seems to be a fairly constant theme. And the news business is no exception. And, boy, have they been bitching and whining about it a lot lately. If you want to see the quintessential example of clueless self-pity, it has to be Leon Wieseltier's recent NY Times whinefest, Among the Disrupted
. Wieseltier is definitely among the disrupted, having recently lost his longtime job at the New Republic as part of a publication-wide freakout over the fact that the new management (led by Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes) wanted to try to make the magazine a bit more relevant to the younger generation. It is a paean to elitism, eloquently insisting that without the cultural elite guiding the way, the digital riffraff online will never understand the true cultural meaning of anything.
A similar piece appeared last week, in the SF Chronicle, by Jon Carroll, in which he does his best impression of telling the digital kids to get off his lawn
, while trying to come to terms with the fact that those darn kids today just don't really trust or believe in the "real media" any more (though he seems to use a rather arbitrary description of who is good -- Al Jazeera -- and who is crud -- Fox News).
But to see the truly hysterical old media in action, you need to just pay attention to the collective freakout over the White House's decision to let three YouTube stars interview President Obama
. It quickly became an easy punchline for sneering elites that this was somehow "beneath the dignity" of the White House. Much of the focus was on one of the three, GloZell Green, a comedian who does funny stuff on her YouTube channel -- including silly challenges, like (the one that everyone keeps bringing up) taking a bath in cereal
Hank Green, one of the other two YouTubers who took part in the interview has hit back with an absolutely fantastic post explaining why it totally makes sense for the White House to have such YouTubers interview the President
, rather than the mainstream media. And it's because most people don't think the mainstream media is legitimate any more. It's lost its legitimacy, because the facade of what the news does has come down. The traditional news report -- what Jay Rosen has repeatedly referred to as "the church of the savvy" or "the view from nowhere" -- focuses on playing up their own connections and insiderness, rather than honesty and earnestness.
But these YouTubers, by contrast, are real -- and people trust them and view them as legitimate because they're real
. As Green writes:
I think sub-consciously they understand the really terrifying thing here. Glozell and Bethany and I weren’t put in a chair next to President Obama because we have cultivated an audience. We were put there because we have cultivated legitimacy.
The source of our legitimacy is the very different from their coiffed, Armani institutions. It springs instead (and I’m aware that I’m abandoning any modicum of modesty here) from honesty. In new media this is often called “authenticity” because our culture is too jaded to use a big fat word like “honesty” without our gallbladders clogging up, but that’s really what it is.
Glozell, Bethany and I don’t sit in fancy news studios surrounded by fifty thousand dollar cameras and polished metal and glass backdrops with inlayed 90-inch LCD screens. People trust us because we’ve spent years developing a relationship with them. We have been scrutinized and found not evil. Our legitimacy comes from honesty, not from cultural signals or institutions.
And with young people having no reasons to trust those cultural signals that we older folks were raised with, this is the only thing that works for them anymore. Our values and interests mesh with theirs enough that they’ve come to trust us. They trust us to make content that they will enjoy and they trust us to be the kind of people they can look up to. People who betray that trust risk losing everything that they have built.
What's amazing is that the Carroll article I mentioned earlier actually is an almost perfect mirror of Green's article in some ways. They both mock the fakeness of Fox News. And they both admit that people now trust their friends and social media contacts more than such news providers. But in Carroll's world, this is dangerous and a sign of the people today not wanting "content" but just snippets:
People don’t want content anymore. They want diversion, and there’s plenty of that. Even the occasional discussion of public issues is diverting; have an opinion, post and go. The formats do not encourage complex discussion, and wit is prized above knowledge.
People don’t care what the media say. They care what their friends say; they get what information they get from people just like themselves. They don’t buy the new, friendlier one-to-many model; it’s still just strangers babbling. You know your friends; you trust them. If they say a restaurant is good, it’s good. If a media site says it, who cares?
Of course, it’s not as simple as that. We’re in a transitional phase; old-media outlets may be shrinking but they still make a lot of money, while the business model for digital publication is a work in progress. But the trends are clear. Objective reporting is now considered impossible, so why bother? And equally: Why bother with complexity?
It really seems like Carroll and Green are discussing the same phenomenon, but from very different perspectives. Green is surfing the wave, while Carroll is being dragged under by it. And, frankly, Carroll is wrong. People absolutely do want "content." They crave it. What they want is honest content
-- and that's the point that Green is making. They care what their friends say because that's honest, and as even Carroll admits in his piece, the media doesn't do that very well.
But from honesty can come complexity. And investigative reporting and a variety of other things. Carroll argues that this new wave has killed off such investigative reporting, but that's ridiculous and wrong. He whines about crusaders, but it's those crusaders who have taken a deep interest in key issues that allows them to do the investigative reporting that needs to be done -- and to do it in a manner that people trust. Because it's real. Glenn Greenwald isn't a traditional investigative reporter, but he's built up a mountain of trust, because his own personality shines through in everything that he does. Agree with him or not, no one can deny that Greenwald is quite real and unlike the interchangeable heads seen on cable news. And the same is true for other "real" figures that the traditional media likes to mock, like Jon Stewart or Jon Oliver. They take different paths, but they really connect with their viewers. And it's the same for the YouTubers that the White House invited in.
The legacy media players may not like it, but mainly because it rips down the facade they've been living behind for so long. The facade that pretends they're all about "objective news reporting" when the reality has long been that they're more focused on being seen as important. The gatekeepers of the news. But the news has no more gatekeepers, and the public seems to prefer honesty, rather than made up objectivity. The view from nowhere now means that many people (especially younger people) see those newscasters as being nowhere at all. And that's why it completely makes sense for the White House to reach out to those people who are real, who have built up trust, and who will continue to be real, even if they ask questions that the mainstream media considers beneath them.